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1. Alpaca farming has gained popularity in recent decades. Alpaca fiber is being touted as the greenest fiber due to the ease of its production, and the many positive qualities that the fiber naturally provides.
2. Alpacas originate from the Altiplano region of the Andes- in parts of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. They live at altitudes of more than 8,000 feet about sea level. The average height of 12,300 ft. is just slightly less than that of Tibet.
3. The dates vary, but alpacas have been domesticated since 4000-6000 B.C. They were highly valued by the Incas. Incan textiles were highly prized. They used the fibers of alpacas, llamas, and vicunas. Vicuna fiber could only be worn by royalty. Today the vicuna, a relative of the alpaca, is protected and mostly wild. Weavings from 500 B.C. have survived, indicating the durability of camelid fibers.
4. There are alpaca hide products on the market as well. Alpaca meat is also eaten, though it is now illegal to slaughter an alpaca for meat in Peru. This is more common in the Andes where it is the only source of protein, but there is illegal trade to other countries. Australia is apparently considering raising alpacas for meat. I hear it tastes like lamb.
5. There are two varieties of alpacas- huacaya and suri. The huacaya is most popular. Its fiber grows straight out from its body, and is shorter, denser, and crimpier, more like sheep fiber. The suri has long lustrous locks that can touch the ground.
6. There are many qualities that make alpaca fiber desirable. One is that it can provide superior warmth with little bulk. The reason is because alpaca fibers have a medulated (or hollow)core. The animal has developed this efficient heating system because of the extreme conditions it lives in. Also, this fiber provides protection against solar radiation.
7. Unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fiber does not contain lanolin, a natural oil produced by the skin. Therefore, it does not cause allergies or create an itchy feeling. Because of this characteristic, less processing is required. Because no lanolin has to be removed, the cleaning process is less intensive.
8. Alpacas are sheared once a year, in the spring. One animal provides 5-10 pounds of fiber. Fibers are kept separate depending on what part of the body they come from. The best fiber comes from the back of the animal. Seconds may contain some coarser hairs, as they come from the neck and belly. Thirds are least desirable.
9. Alpaca fiber, among other animal fibers is a great oil absorbent. To clean up oil in the Gulf of Mexico, alpaca fiber was sent to the ecological organization, Matter of Trust, which as gathering fiber to stuff into nylons, which would then be placed in the ocean to soak up oil. This creation was unfortunately not utilized in this clean-up, as the tubes would not float very well, but the application has other uses, such as gutter booms to catch oil runoff after storms.
10. There are 22 recognized naturally occurring colors of alpaca fleece. They range from white to black, with grays and browns in between. With this many natural colors, many products are made without using harmful dyes. However, if dying is desired, the white fiber takes it well. Breeding of white alpacas has been more popular for this reason.
11. Alpacas are camelids, like camels and llamas. They thrive in extreme environments, and consume very little food compared to other grazers. Alpacas are courteous residents. They have padded feet, not hooves, so they do little damage to the landscape. When they graze, they do not tear up plants by the roots, and they eat a variety of plants. They use a communal dung pile, which makes for a cleaner environment, and easy removal of the waste for fertilizer.
12. Alpacas are often confused with llamas. However, these two creatures are very different. Alpacas are much smaller and more timid than llamas. They have a softer coat, whereas llamas have coarser hair and the K’ara or “light wool” type is used more as a beast of burden. The Ch’aku “heavy wool” llama provides the fleece for the manufacture of heavy duty products such as carpets, ropes, hats, and bags.
13. Alpaca ranches are found all over the world. They are found throughout the United States, with the highest numbers in Ohio, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and California. Other countries that raise alpacas are Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Switzerland.
14. With the popularity of alpaca, I was wondering if there are more common and varied applications, like for wool. Normally what you see of alpaca goods are mostly traditional Incan motifs, generally in the natural colors.
15. I found AYNI by Anardo and Skyum. This is a high fashion line which exclusively uses alpaca for international designs. The company works with artisans in Peru to provide opportunities for locals.
16. As I researched further into this, it seems there are several companies, mainly South American ones, that produce contemporary everyday products out of alpaca, not just as a luxury as many of the U.S. goods I have found. It’s just a way of life there. Products that we would have made of sheep’s wool are made of alpaca there.
17. Up until 1993, Peru was protecting its alpaca population as part of national heritage and as a prominent resource. Once the numbers were at an optimal level, they allowed exports authorized herds to the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Ecuador in order to revitalize this country’s diminishing Alpaca population. In 1996, the exports were limited to 1700 a year, as Peru worried that these exports would affect the species’ gene pool and adversely affect the fiber industry of Peru. However, studies show that the numbers were actually much more, indicating a black market.
18. Because there are only a certain number of the highly sought after young breeding males, other breeders have bred alpacas with llamas instead. The resulting animal is called a huarizo. This incorporates genes for coarse hair into the alpaca gene pool, thus breeding animals without desirable fiber, jeopardizing the species’ genetic integrity.
19. A criticism of worldwide alpaca farming is that many do so more for the profits of breeding, rather than for producing fleece itself. Non-breeding alpacas go for several hundred dollars, whereas breeding ones go for $10,000 or more. Breeding alpacas from South America bring in $10-30,000 each for the exporter, but the actual breeder/rancher gets only $500.
20. It’s the local family-owned businesses- weavers, spinners, etc. who really depend on the alpacas. They are the ones who would be really hurt by changes to the alpacas, and a subsequent lack of desire for the products. Also, more competition in the marketplace could affect their lifestyle.
21. Despite these challenges, the pros seem to outweigh the cons with alpaca fiber. There’s a lot to love about alpacas!